Tell the Truth and Do No Harm: Keys to Writing Historical Fiction
Updated: Oct 24
When I was a kid I was always reading.
I’d get so lost in a story Dad had to coax me out of the house to play flag football with my brothers and sister. Mom had to yell with climbing exasperation to get me downstairs to set the table.
I loved, loved, loved the inner world of books.
Even barely scratching the surface of memory, cherished books spring to mind: Little Women, the adventures of Pipi Longstocking and the Little House on the Prairie series grew dogeared in my backpack.
I have a visceral memory of jittery excitement when Mrs. Hamlin, the Lower School librarian, led me to yet another rainbow of multi-colored book spines saying. “I think you’ll love these, Joanie.”
And I did.
I saw myself in them. I, too, yearned to be a writer like Jo. I secretly wished I could be as unconventional and super strong as Pipi. (She would never get pinned by her older brother!) And I imagined being brave and resilient living through harsh, dangerous winters like Laura did on her family’s prairie homestead.
Through those characters, I saw the girl I was, and glimpsed the person I longed to be. Someone who felt safe even though she didn’t quite fit in. Someone who was courageous enough to stand up for herself. Someone who believed she could make her dreams come true.
Again and again, the characters opened worlds wider than the Illinois cornfield rows outside my bedroom window. In those moments, the March sisters’ life in the 1860s and the Ingall’s family survival in the rugged American Midwest lived in real time in my imagination.
Stories set in the past became my very real present.
If Pipi could be super strong, why not me? (I started to try ambushing my older brother before he got to me first - ha! I was successful until he caught on.)
And if Laura could wake up with a film of snow blown in through her log cabin’s window cracks and not be intimidated, I could face down that day’s tough math test.
In stories, this connection to the present makes the portrayal of the past really important. When we read, there’s a part of our brains that believes the story is happening now. We take that in, for better or worse.
It’s an author’s secret superpower — and responsibility.
Tell the Truth and Do No Harm
Last week I presented a talk with two fellow historical fiction authors on this superpower topic.
Our workshop, “How to Truthfully Portray the Past without Harm,” was given at the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA) Tenth Anniversary Conference in Chicago to a packed audience of historical fiction and other genre authors.
We grabbed three points:
· What is “implicit bias” and how to respond to it. Harm is often caused by blind-spots of unconscious bias. No one can escape stereotyping others; we’re conditioned by our culture to make assumptions, especially about those who are different from ourselves. Our talk gave ideas on how to increase awareness of bias in order to counteract it.
· How to find those left out of official historical records. The “winners” of historical events tend to record only their one-dimensional so-called glorious point of view, leaving out all who were impacted. We gave research techniques to look beyond textbooks to find these untold stories.
· How to accurately write about harmful historical social norms without perpetuating or endorsing them. Heinous acts from the past may be important to include in one’s stories, but there are ways to do so without endorsing, or even re-traumatizing readers, when relaying past events. (See Writing Diversely)
To authors, this focus on how to write about the past is fundamental. Writing flashbacks, conveying how a character’s backstory motives her, or reflecting a past worldview perspective in the plot - all are tools in the writer toolkit.
Civilization and culture are constantly evolving, including outgrowing old beliefs. Repeating actions and attitudes widely accepted in the past in our stories—Native Americans are savages, women are less capable, Blacks are second-class citizens—without correcting and acknowledging the beliefs were wrong perpetuates the lies and injures the reader.
Sound a Little Wonky? Here’s an Example.
I have an illustration of the portrayal of the past inflicting harm today by using my childhood favorite, the Little House series.
The books came under scrutiny in 1998. That year an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation in Minnesota came home upset when her teacher read a slur from one of the Wilder books: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The overall picture of Native Americans in the series reflects the 1800’s racist attitudes. That young girl experienced present-day harm although the story was published in the 1930’s. (See Insensitivity in Little House books for more.)
Does knowing the books are racist dampen my memory of loving the stories? Yes, it does. But it doesn't stop me from empathizing with both the author and the reader.
It’s the nature of progress to disrupt old paradigms. And progress always faces resistance. Think of Galileo who died imprisoned by powerful people who refused to accept his discovery that the Earth rotated around the sun.
Change is hard, but we can do our part to let go of old patterns to make room for progress.
That’s what the workshop was all about.
I have a beautiful mixed-race family. My name is Fernandez for heaven’s sake. When racial slurs and calls for violence against disenfranchised and marginalized people ring out, it's my family that’s maligned. Is that the kind of world we want for our children? That we want for us? Are these kinds of attacks what we want for humanity’s identity?
Why do we book lovers love to read? It’s a part of who we are.
I want to identify only the best for you.